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PHT’s 2018-19 Central Division Preview

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(The 2018-19 NHL season is almost here. This week Pro Hockey Talk will be previewing all four divisions looking at strengths and weaknesses, whether teams are better or worse this season and more!)

Atlantic Division Preview
Metropolitan Division Preview
Pacific Division Preview

It’s been widely regarded as the toughest (and arguably the most talented) division in the NHL, and the Central Division certainly lived up to that moniker last season, sporting the top two teams league-wide in the Nashville Predators and the Winnipeg Jets, finishing with 117 and 114 points, respectively. The division doesn’t look like it will take a step back this season, either.

It’s one of the most interesting arms races in the NHL and there are no signs of that slowing down.

What will the division look like this year? Let’s take a look:

CHICAGO BLACKHAWKS: 

Better or Worse: This one depends on how the Corey Crawford situation plays out. It appears he’s getting close to returning, but it takes one puck or one bump in the crease to send Chicago’s season into a spiral again. Cam Ward is a serviceable backup, if not still a fringe starter in the NHL, so Chicago has that going for them at the moment.

The ‘Hawks are only getting older. See: Brent Seabrook, Duncan Keith, etc. Jonathan Toews’ production is slipping. Patrick Kane is likely still going to put in work, but I’m not certain it will be enough.

Strengths: Goaltending, if Crawford plays. His numbers last season were otherworldly until injuries derailed his bid for the Vezina. Ward, as mentioned above, should be a solid backup that could allow Crawford to rest a little more throughout the season but Crawford needs to play for the Blackhawks to have a shot.

Weaknesses: Defense. Keith and Seabrook at the team’s top defensive pairing and aren’t getting younger and are playing more minutes than what would be considered optimal. Both are overworked and it showed last year. Adding Brandon Manning over the summer offers some depth on the back end, but it’s simply not what it used to be in Chicago.

2017-18 Highlight: One name: Scott Foster.

MVP Candidate: Patrick Kane. He’s still one of the best playing the game currently, a point-per-game player that can put the Blackhawks on his back on any given night.

Playoffs or Lottery: Lottery. The Central Division is simply too good to allow mediocre teams into the playoffs.

COLORADO AVALANCHE: 

Better or Worse: Was it a fluke? A team that was dismal a year prior went on to make the playoffs with their last possible chance on the final day of the regular season and then looked pretty darn good against the Nashville Predators at times in the first round.

They added depth in Matt Calvert and Ian Cole and made things interesting in the crease after acquiring Philipp Grubauer via trade. Can they build off last season, or will they experience the bumps young teams do as they grow together? There’s a lot of questions that need to be answered.

Strengths: Special teams were a tremendous asset to the Avalanche last season. They finished eighth on the power play at 21.9 percent and fourth on the penalty kill at 83.3 percent. Those are some solid numbers from a young team like the Avs.

Weaknesses: The expectation that Nathan MacKinnon (and his line) needs to do it all. We saw it last year, and the Avalanche made the playoffs (barely) because of it. But that can’t be the expectation going forward. They’re still a team rebuilding, so the expectation is that will be cured with time.

2017-18 Highlight: Clinching a playoff berth in Game 82. (Don’t miss Landeskog getting mauled by his teammates after the clinching empty-netter.)

MVP Candidate: Nathan MacKinnon. Some say he got robbed of the Hart last year. He put the team on his back on the way to a playoff spot.

Playoffs or Lottery: Unfortunately, a couple teams have gotten better around them and that’s pushed the Avalanche out of the playoff spot and into the lottery.

DALLAS STARS:

Better or Worse: It has to get better, right? A new coaching style courtesy of Jim Montgomery might just do wonders for this team. It’s not like the talent isn’t there. They have one of the best top lines in all of hockey. Simply, if the Stars can score more, they have the rest of the tools to be a playoff team. A top 10 defense and solid goaltending are in place. Score. More. Goals.

Strengths: Defense. This seems to be a theme in this division. Dallas, despite their inability to score outside of their top line, was consistent on the backend, allowing the sixth fewest goals against in the league. Part of that is John Klingberg and Co. The other part is Ben Bishop. They had a decent penalty kill and allowed the fourth fewest number of shots per game.

Weaknesses: The Stars simply need more goals. It was their burden last season. They simply couldn’t find the back of the next enough to win hockey games. The teams’ top power-play unit needs to be better than their 19th ranking last season.

2017-18 Highlight: Here’s Jordie Benn hitting brother Jamie while their parents were in the stands to watch their sons play. Classic.

MVP Candidate: Tyler Seguin. No contract worries to think about. Just a sheet of ice and a swath of opportunities for goals.

Playoffs or Lottery: Playoffs. I simply don’t believe the Stars were as bad as their record showed last season. The switch of Hitchcock to Montgomery is a big one. And, to harp on the goals again, the Stars are a few more of those away from being a playoff team given their defense and goaltending.

MINNESOTA WILD:

Better or Worse: Better because Ryan Suter will be healthy. Better because they will start the season with Zach Parise.

Suter was ruled out for the rest of the season on March 31 and could only watch as the Winnipeg Jets decimated the Wild in the playoffs. Suter’s return is big for the team that added some depth in the offseason. The Wild dealt with a litany of injuries last season to top players such as Parise (who missed many games due to offseason back surgery), Nino Niederreiter and Charlie Coyle. While Eric Staal may not score 42 goals again, a healthy Wild team is a dangerous Wild team.

Strengths: Devan Dubnyk has been rock solid in goal, and couple that with the Wild’s stingy defense, and there’s no reason to think he won’t have another great year again. The Wild are a good defensive team that can also score a pile of goals.

Weaknesses: The Wild are their own worst enemy. Minnesota is a good team that just can’t figure it out in the postseason. They finished 11th in goals for last season but only scored nine in five playoff games against the Jets. You can only shoot yourself in the foot so many times before it falls off. Calling on Bruce Boudreau to figure that out — it’s his job.

2017-18 Highlight: Eric Staal was sensational last season. Here’s a five-point night that included a hat trick for good measure.

MVP Candidate: Matt Dumba. A workhorse defenseman who anchors the power play and can score. He achieved career highs in goals with 14 and points with 34 last season and could take another step toward that elite plateau this year.

Playoffs or Lottery: Playoffs. They showed even without star players for various lengths last season, they had the depth to find a way in the back door. The Wild are a great team that shouldn’t have an issue making the playoffs.

NASHVILLE PREDATORS:

Better or Worse: They added a veteran presence on the backend in Dan Hamuis and have Eeli Tolvanen to look forward to upfront. They’re basically the same team that was in the Cup Final two years ago and have all that experience to lean on once again this season. They’re better through experience and a couple of added pieces that could finally fit this puzzle together.

Strengths: There’s still no better defensive core in hockey, right? Josi. Subban. Ellis. Ekholm – their top four is the envy of the NHL. They added third-pairing depth in veteran defenseman Dan Hamhuis, too. It heads into the regular season as the best back end in hockey (with San Jose hot on their heels).

Weaknesses: The Predators are one of those teams with few flaws. Adept at scoring, solid at defense and proficient at goaltending. Where’s the weakness? It could come from Pekka Rinne. I know, the Vezina winner from this past season? He’s set to turn 36 and struggled in the playoffs when the Predators needed him the most. Juuse Saros should help reduce the workload. That’s good, because if the Predators are going to win in their current window, they need Rinne at his very best at the most important time of the year.

2017-18 Highlight: The Knob Save (Josh Morrissey caught some mean whiplash on the play).

Bonus round: Viktor Arvidsson’s pre-game marriage proposal win.

MVP Candidate: Filip Forsberg. Became a point-per-game player last season even after missing time due to injury, and set a career high in assists.

Playoffs or Lottery: Playoffs, a no-brainer. They’re one of two legitimate Stanley Cup contenders in the Central Divison.

ST. LOUIS BLUES:

Better or Worse: The Blues were in upgrade mode all summer, adding the likes of Ryan O'Reilly, Tyler Bozak and Patrick Maroon, while welcoming back David Perron after his year in Vegas.

The Blues were on the bubble last season, and may have made the playoffs if they sort of give up around the trade deadline and deal Paul Stastny away. The Blues added scoring in the offseason, which will help their bottom-third showing in goals-for, and should help equate to more wins.

Strengths: Undeniably, it’s St. Louis’ defense. On a team with a starting goaltender that had a .906 save percentage, the Blue still gave the sixth-fewest number of goals last season. That’s no small feat, given the struggles Allen achieved last season.

Weaknesses: It has to be in goal. Jake Allen is the ultimate Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde goaltender. There are days where he appears elite and days where he belongs in the American Hockey League. If Allen can be steady, the Blues are going to be a playoff team. If not, welcome to the lottery.

2017-18 Highlight: Brayden Schenn‘s remarkable season.

MVP Candidate: Vladimir Tarasenko. It’s time for him to hit 40 goals again.

Playoffs or Lottery: Playoffs. Despite the question of Allen, the Blues just look like a solid team in front of him, one that can potentially make up for any shortcomings their goaltending may have.

WINNIPEG JETS:

Better or Worse:  Better by virtue of the team getting one year old and coming into this season armed with the knowledge of what it takes to get into the Stanley Cup Playoffs and then what it takes to make a deep run, as the Jets did last season.

And it should be noted that their Western Conference Final elimination should serve in the growth department. Learning to lose and learning from losing can be just as important. They lost Paul Stastny, but were a good team prior to Stasny’s arrival at the trade deadline last season.

Strengths: Winnipeg’s offense was one of the best in the NHL last season and there’s no reason that should change, barring catastrophic injuries to the likes of Patrik Laine, Blake Wheeler and Mark Scheifele. Laine could easily top 50 this season, and Wheeler and Scheifele are point-per-game players.

Winnipeg’s power play is lethal and they found secondary scoring in abundance last season. Their projected fourth line (or third, depending on how you look at it) was one of the top 10 lines in the league in terms of puck possession, goals-for percentage and expected goals-for percentage.

Weaknesses: The Jets have few faults, which is what you’d expect from a team that won 52 games last season. That said, questions marks on defense have dominated training camp. The team is trying Tyler Myers out on the left side with Dustin Byfuglien and early impressions aren’t favorable. The loss of Toby Enstrom, who the Jets couldn’t afford to re-sign, has created a hole that needs filling.

2017-18 Highlight: Winning Game 7 in emphatic fashion in the second round against the Nashville Predators to book a trip to the Western Conference Final.

MVP Candidate: Mark Scheifele. A 16-game absence robbed him from a solid run at the Hart last season. Wheeler will be in the mix, too, but Scheifele seems poised for a season that could creep close to the century mark in terms of points.

Playoffs or Lottery: Playoffs, and perhaps an improvement on their trip to the Western Final last year. They’re a Stanley Cup contender.

MORE: Your 2018-19 NHL on NBC TV schedule

Scott Billeck is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @scottbilleck

The Buzzer: Greiss shutout gives Trotz win in return to Washington

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Three stars

1. Thomas Greiss, New York Islanders

There was probably a little pressure inside the Islanders dressing room prior to this one. Sure, it was just another game in the 82-game slog that is the regular season, but for their head coach, it was a bit more special than that.

Barry Trotz made his return to Washington for the first time since winning the Stanley Cup as the Capitals bench boss last June. They gave him a classy tribute and then he and his Islanders made sure they wouldn’t forget him in a 2-0 win.

Greiss was instrumental in that, stopping all 19 shots he faced as the Islanders leapfrogged both Washington and Columbus to move into first place in the Metropolitan Division.

John Tavares who?

2. Roberto Luongo, Florida Panthers

Sticking with goalies and their help in big wins… Luongo stopped 20 of the 21 shots he faced in a 3-1 win against the Toronto Maple Leafs.

It’s not a 40-save night, but consider that the Panthers came into the game with a seven-game losing streak as a heavy anchor. They needed something, and Luongo provided the near-perfect game to end the longest active streak in the NHL.

3. Sam Bennett, Calgary Flames

Bennett usually gets lost in the Johnny Gaudreaus and the Sean Monahans of the Calgary world.

Some nights the other two don’t light it up, allowing other Flames to shine. Bennett provided that spark, scoring twice and adding an assist in the game.

Bennett’s second of the came with under four minutes left and broke a 4-4 deadlock in a 6-4 Calgary win over the Detroit Red Wings.

Highlights of the night

Bennett’s winner came off a nice pick up on a not so nice pass:

Kuemper the keeper:

A nice tribute to Brooks Orpik, who played his 1,000th game on Friday:

When you celly too hard:

Factoids

Scores

Panthers 3, Maple Leafs 1
Canadiens 4, Blue Jackets 1
Islanders 2, Capitals 0
Senators 4, Hurricanes 1
Flames 6, Red Wings 4
Penguins 3, Coyotes 2 (OT)
Canucks 4, Sabres 3


Scott Billeck is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @scottbilleck

Caps give Trotz, coaching staff classy tribute in return to Washington

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They helped build a team that would eventually win the franchise’s first Stanley Cup last June, so when Barry Trotz, Lane Lambert and Mitch Korn returned to Washington to face their former team on Friday, it was only fitting that the Capitals made sure to give the trio a classy salute.

And classy it was.

A 1:35-long video played on the jumbotron at Capital One Arena, while a packed house stood and showed their admiration for the coaching staff that led the Capitals to four consecutive 100-point seasons, 205 wins, a .677 points percentage and back-to-back Presidents’ Trophies.

Trotz was named the winner of the Jack Adams Award for the best coach in 2016 and, of course, led the Capitals past the Vegas Golden Knights in five games last season to capture hockey’s greatest prize.

Here’s the video tribute:

Trotz is now the head coach with the New York Islanders, with Korn and Lambert also by his side once again, and they have already put their stamp on that team, helping them get past the loss of John Tavares over the summer and still be a playoff contender in the Eastern Conference.

That’s just the Trotz way.

You can read more about Trotz, his return, why he left and what he’s done on Long Island in this story from PHT’s Sean Leahy.


Scott Billeck is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @scottbilleck

Matt Dumba’s ‘anger’ led to indefinite stint on sidelines

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Chalk one up for those who are staunch supporters of their star players not engaging in fisticuffs.

Fans of the Minnesota Wild would have wished that Matt Dumba wouldn’t have thrown a “wild punch” at Matthew Tkachuk in a game against the Calgary Flames on Dec. 15.

The fight happened just 40 seconds into the first period. The result? A torn pectoral muscle, surgery, and an indefinite timeline for return.

Dumba, who led the NHL in defenseman scoring prior to the injury, told the Star Tribune’s Sarah McLellan that he was “angry.”

“I was angry and threw a wild punch that didn’t connect,” Dumba said Friday. “I had a bunch of stitches in my face and I think he rubbed those, had hit those a couple times, and it made me pretty angry.”

Dumba, wearing a brace around his right arm, told reporters that he didn’t feel the pain of the injury until he had a chance to calm down in the penalty box.

Dumba’s surgery came on Dec. 26 and along with it, a three-month timetable to return. On Friday, Dumba didn’t have a firm return date.

“It’s pretty slow to start here,” he told NHL.com. “Everything is just letting it heal, letting it get the rest that it needs. That’s our focus right now. I’ve been doing that and making sure this repairs the right way.”

Dumba will be stuck in that brace for a few more weeks before he can start rehabilitating the injury.

The Wild could sure use their best defenseman in the fight for a playoff spot. They could use that scoring — the Wild are 25th in goals-for this season. It appears that if he’s to play again this season, it might not be until the playoffs begin in early April.


Scott Billeck is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @scottbilleck

Plunging Panthers get a break: Trocheck is back

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About two months since fracturing his ankle in a frightening on-ice accident, Florida Panthers forward Vincent Trocheck is back. He’s suiting up against the Toronto Maple Leafs on Friday.

Panthers coach Bob Boughner makes it sound like Trocheck essentially kicked down the door to get back in the lineup, as Jameson Olive of the team website reports.

“He came in pounding the table. You know Troch, he wants to be back in so bad,” Panthers coach Bob Boughner said. “The doctors reaffirmed he’s back to 100 percent, so now it’s just our decision … we’ll see.”

Getting the 25-year-old back is a big deal, so it’s not surprising to see the Panthers celebrate this positive development.

You can firmly plant this under the heading “hockey players are tough.” It was perfectly reasonable to expect Trocheck to miss the remainder of the season. Instead, Friday’s game against Toronto is merely the Panthers’ 46th game of 2018-19.

Uncomfortably enough, it’s fair to wonder if Trocheck’s return will still be a matter of “too little, too late.”

The Panthers are carrying a bruising seven-game losing streak into Friday’s action, and it’s not as though the Toronto Maple Leafs will make things particularly easy on them.

Just about all the prognostications look dour. Money Puck gives them a 3.05-percent chance to make the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs, less than their odds for the Los Angeles Kings. Corsica’s projections put Florida at 2.6-percent, this time tying the lowly Kings, but lower than the Devils and Flyers. Woof.

Now, let there be no doubt that the Panthers could be a highly formidable opponent if Trocheck returns at anywhere near “100 percent.”

Even the Trocheck boost likely won’t be enough for Florida to earn just its third postseason trip since 1999-2000, yet with plenty of questions swirling about Boughner’s job security, perhaps a more fully-formed effort could earn the current Panthers regime another swing in 2019-20? However you feel about Boughner and GM Dale Tallon, this franchise’s history is littered with more reboots than “The Fantastic Four” and “Spiderman” movies combined (and with box office receipts that lean more toward The Invisible Woman than webslingers). A little stability could be good for the Panthers.

The worst-case scenario is scary, mind you. What if the Panthers end up hitting the reset button and it’s shown that Trocheck rushed back from injury too soon, possibly aggravating issues?

Such worries hover in the background, but regardless, it’s impressive that Trocheck has been able to return so soon.

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.